As Seen on TV: Presidents & the Press

By Kaleena Fraga

On this day in 1961, John Kennedy gave the first live televised press conference. The exchange can be watched in its entirety below:

Kennedy had observed what an effective medium television had been for him during the debates in 1960, and was determined to utilize it in his presidency–popular political lore says that TV viewers picked Kennedy as the debate winner over the sickly, sweaty Nixon, but listeners of the radio thought that Nixon’s deeper voice gave him the victory.

Kennedy was not the first president to utilize television during his press conferences, but he was the first to do it live. Dwight Eisenhower first held a televised press conference in 1955. Ike walked up to the podium, looked over the gathered reporters, stuck one hand in his pocket and said, “Well, I see we’re trying a new experiment this morning. I hope it doesn’t prove to be a disturbing influence.”

In between 1961 and his death in 1963, Kennedy gave 65 press conferences, about twice a month, an average of every sixteen days.  He and Eisenhower both gave about 700 public addresses, big and small, which says something about the pace of the Kennedy White House–Eisenhower had eight years in power, Kennedy less than three. Kennedy always went in prepared to meet the press–his aide Pierre Salinger described how they would go over 20-30 possible questions the press might ask the night before.

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Roosevelt greets reporters at his first press conference, 1933

It was certainly a more studious method than that of Franklin Roosevelt, who, during his first press conference, let 125 reporters into the Oval Office to shoot their questions at him. The three presidents before him–Hoover, Coolidge, and Harding–had required that all questions were written down and submitted in advance. The new system was met with relief and excitement from the reporters who followed the White House. Roosevelt, with the advantage of being in office for an unprecedented 12 years, gave more news conferences than any other president. Over his tenure, he would give 881. It was no wonder that, after his first address, the assembled reporters gave the new president a round of applause.

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Roosevelt talking to reporters, 1906

Teddy Roosevelt, too, had a nonchalant attitude toward the press. According to biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, Teddy understood that the strength of his message relied on his relationship with the press (Roosevelt is the one, after all, who coined the term “bully pulpit”). Kearns writes that Roosevelt “called reporters by their first names, invited them to meals, took questions during his midday shave…[and] brought them aboard his private railroad car during his regular swings around the country.”

Curiously, perhaps because early century presidents lacked other methods of communication, the number of news conferences given per year gradually declined toward the end of the 20th century. In other words, as the use of television grew, presidents used it less, at least for press conferences. According to the American Presidency Project, Coolidge, over six years in office, delivered an average of 72.9 news conferences a year, 407 total, barely beating FDR’s average of 72.66. (Somewhat surprisingly, since Coolidge was known by the moniker “Silent Cal.”) By contrast, more modern presidents have given far fewer. Ronald Reagan gave the least, with an average of just 5.75 conferences per year.

That’s more than the current president. Donald Trump still has three years in his term, but as of January 2018, he’s given just one solo press conference.

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